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Playing Well with Others

Hello Troubadourians! When I first began writing for the Troubadour the focus of this column was mainly to answer your questions about gear and the technology that is a major part of today’s music, especially as it applies to live performance. While that remains the main focus, I have ventured into other subjects and discussions from time to time. Because I am a guitarist, most topics are written from the viewpoint of a guitarist and how that instrument fits into a band or as a solo instrument. My experience as a performing and studio musician has also informed me as to the characteristics of many other instruments and how they fit into the musical landscape. Bass guitar and drums are the most often encountered instruments for me, so learning how to blend my guitar with those instruments is of intense importance. As you might expect, every bass player I have ever played with has their own sound and occupy their own sonic space. Likewise, every drummer has their own idea of what their kit should sound like, and that is made all the more complex with multiple drums and cymbals. The variations can seem infinite. That’s particularly true when you’re recording. When you’re mixing a song, the balance of frequencies is essential so that the song sounds “good.” Of course, good is relative to the song or genre of the music and also differs with the taste of the band, producer, or artist. Sometimes the desired sound is that things blend or run together as though two—or more—instruments or tracks sound like one. Or, as in the case of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, every sonic space is filled by something or some instrument in an effort to construct a background upon which the vocal can be the most prominent instrument. This approach works in the studio and makes for some very full sounding recordings. But it often doesn’t translate well in a live environment. It really takes fewer instruments to fill a sonic space live than you might think, and it can get very muddy very fast. Even just a couple of loud electric guitars can fill so much space that things become indistinct.

My personal preference both in the studio and live is to create a mix where the listener can pick out a single sound or instrument—maybe the hi-hat cymbals or something like that—and just listen to that in imaginary isolation. Everything having its own sonic space and complementing the other instruments and sounds really appeals to my ear. I try to find that same balance when I’m playing live as well, although that’s sometimes difficult to achieve. The more instruments you add, the harder it becomes, and achieving that balance is really dependent upon the individual musicians. Everyone has to always be listening and be constantly aware of the sonic space they are occupying. The dynamics of a song should dictate where everyone “fits” into the soundscape. Sometimes you want a constant for some instruments while the others come in and out as required. Other times everyone moves into and out of the mix to accentuate the different sections of the song. This is probably the most difficult concept for musicians of all levels of experience to understand and practice. Guitar players are particularly guilty of occupying too much space as I mentioned above. That said, if the bass and drums are taking up a lot of space, there isn’t a lot of room for the guitars(s) and the tendency is to play louder just to be able to hear yourself. I’ve come away from gigs and rehearsals with my ears ringing from cymbals more often than loud guitars. The solution is listening—while you’re playing—and rehearsal so that everyone knows where their space is and keeps within that space. It’s much easier said than done and requires discipline from every player.

The tendency for a lot of musicians who achieve a certain level of proficiency is to want to “go for it” whenever they are given the opportunity. I understand that desire, I really do, but the truth is that going for it is often at the expense of the song, the band, and the audience. We’ve all seen the Rock Star guitar player making all sorts of guitar faces and just blowing on an extended solo. But why does that work for them, and when we mere mortals try it things just get muddy and washed out and we get told to turn down. Well, let’s put aside the possible talent gap and strictly talk about what’s really happening. First of all, the environment is strategically unique. On a big stage with everything spread out, everything sounds very different than what it is coming out of the main PA speakers. That mix is carefully crafted by a professional sound engineer with hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of gear at his or her fingertips and all of it has been “dialed in” for that band. On stage, everyone relies on their monitor mix to hear themselves and the rest of the band. Without those monitors, things sound very strange and distant except for whatever you happen to stand directly on front of. So, Mr. Rock Star can go off without killing everyone else on stage or in the audience. But most important, the band has rehearsed everything that happens on stage to the point that there are no surprises and what seems spontaneous is actually very planned out. While there might be some parts of that epic solo that are different from show to show, it is a guarantee that the beginning and the end are always the same and there are musical clues to the rest of the band and crew that signal when he’s done. The rest is acting… seriously, it is. Not everything is what it appears to be. The biggest part of this equation is the rehearsal aspect. In a professional show, nothing is left to chance. The risk is too high, and the audience has paid too much money for anything less that the appearance of perfection. One summer I saw Aerosmith perform on three successive nights in different cities in both indoor and outdoor venues and the shows were virtually identical. That didn’t make them any less awesome and no less “rock ‘n’ roll” but it did drive home the knowledge that the level of professionalism that is required from everyone involved—from the performers, to the crew, to the venue stage hands—is exceedingly high. If it weren’t for the nightly adrenaline rush from actually being on stage in front of an adoring and demanding audience, the sheer repetition would be mind-numbingly boring.

The takeaway from all of this is that sounding good first requires that you listen. Then you have to be respectful of the other musicians and your audience. And you have to rehearse your ass off all of the time. There is no substitute for knowing what everyone else is going to do and for them to know what you are going to do.

Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (